Bayern Munich captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was a rock in the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain, making several saves, including two point-blank ones. Neuer has time and again denied the best strikers by sticking to his tried-and-tested method of lying spread-eagled when under pressure.
So what is a “possession keeper”, and why does Neuer fall into that category?
Neuer is a highly evolved goalkeeping specimen known as the “possession keeper”, for he combines the role of a shot-stopper, sweeper and libero.
Not only does he thwart strikes, he also circulates the ball, and launches attacks. He’ll also stride out, make neat tackles, and feed defenders with accurate passes, as part of the pressing game sweeping over Germany. The Bayern press actually begins with Neuer, who has the foot skills to deal with defensive problems before they emerge, freeing up field players to press opponents deep into their own half.
So multi-faceted is he that besides trusting him with free-kicks and penalties, his Germany manager Joachim Loew reckons he can play in the midfield. The versatility means his fundamental shot-stopping skills are somewhat under-appreciated. But in Bayern’s triumph over PSG on Sunday (August 23), his acrobatics, anticipation, and aggression brought the spotlight back on his core skill as a shot-stopper.
And what is Neuer’s spread-eagled method?
In the 70th minute of the match, Angel Di Maria slid a needle-eye pass through to Marquinhos. He ran onto the near post and blasted a shot between the post and Neuer. The German goalkeeper flew to his left, to the intended direction of the ball – only that the shot was miscued and hence trickled to the right of Neuer.
But the latter, far from being flustered, stuck out his right leg to the opposite direction of his body, and scrambled the ball away with his shin. Similarly, he had prevented Neymar from scoring in the 18th minute from just 10 yards. The trickster that Neymar is, he looked to shoot towards Neuer’s right, but chose to place the ball to his left. But for the intervention of Neuer’s extended left leg, it was goal-bound.
As he makes his landing on the ground, his body is spread-eagled symmetrically like a gymnast, his eyes fixed on the ball, hands aloft like a busy traffic policeman’s. It’s one of those frames that look better in a photograph than on television. It’s the ultimate expression of the 21st-century goalkeeper’s expanded role in the flow of play.
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How does he send strikers the wrong way?
It’s a classic Neuer move. He dives one way, but his leg moves in the opposite direction. He makes it look like a micro-second adjustment, upon realising that the ball is heading the other way, as if he has achieved yogic flexibility of his body, but in reality it’s a practised, nuanced act.
The key to the move is his eyes, which are so fixed on the ball that he could gauge even its minutest deviance in the air. And his body is supple enough to make awkward contortions – it keeps an immaculate balance during the complicated movement. Sometimes he does it deliberately, to fool the striker. He flings one way, the adversary shoots the other way. But some part of Neuer is already there to block the ball.
Talk of strikers sending goalkeepers and defenders the wrong way, here a goalkeeper was sending the striker the wrong way! It’s part of the reason some strikers freeze at the sight of Neuer. He might not be as physically imposing as some of the legendary goalkeepers, but his reputation is enough to psyche them out.
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What works for the move?
Difficult though it is to master the move, it empowers goalkeepers to cover more ground, and equips them with a better reach. As such, the 6-foot 4-inch Neuer has extraordinary reach. Once a striker is aware of this skill, reluctance creeps in, he’s confused, and this fleeting deliberation is all it requires for the defenders to congest him.
It’s especially effective against the ground-trimming snap-shot, thus encouraging attackers to launch more airborne strikes at Neuer. But then the accuracy is compromised, and Neuer is terrific in dealing with airy strikes – unless they fly from the boots of Cristiano Ronaldo, who always relies on power rather than placement against Neuer.
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